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More Lawmakers Are Leading Efforts to Reopen Some Schools By Statute — And Not Just in Red States

By Kevin Mahnken | February 23, 2021

Govs. Roy Cooper of North Carolina, Kim Reynolds of Iowa and Ralph Northam of Virginia. (Getty Images)

Corrected March 3

As the state approaches the one-year anniversary of its first COVID-related school closures, lawmakers in North Carolina have taken the dramatic step of passing legislation this month that would require districts to offer some version of in-person learning.

The proposal now sits on the desk of Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper, who has found fault with its language but not yet announced whether he will sign it. The episode is the latest public health dispute between a popular governor, reelected only last November, and a Republican legislature that has sought to curb his authority since he first took office.

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It is also part of a fast-spreading trend of statutory attempts to open schools from state capitals, even as declining coronavirus cases and the accelerating deployment of vaccines present better conditions for districts to initiate the reopening process themselves. In late January, Iowa passed its own law pushing all schools to offer families at least the option of full-time, in-person education. A bipartisan group of Virginia legislators is advancing a proposal to mandate an in-person option for all students by July 1. And in California, Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom and his Democratic allies in Sacramento are at odds over how quickly, and under what conditions, to bring students back to their classrooms.

Under North Carolina’s reopening proposal, school districts would have to reopen fully for special needs students whose families sought that service, while offering either full-time or hybrid instruction for all other students. Teachers in the state are prioritized to receive vaccinations beginning Feb. 24.

For the moment, schools have been ordered to open in just a handful of Republican-controlled states: Iowa, Texas, Florida, and (for elementary and middle school students only) West Virginia. But with the GOP giddily attacking Democrats across the country over the slow-burning frustration of shuttered schools, there is building pressure to lift restrictions even on bluer terrain.

Sarah Reckhow, a political scientist at Michigan State University, said that the various strategies adopted by states were a reflection of partisan differences as much as the threat posed by COVID. While President Biden has gingerly nudged both education officials and teachers’ unions to speed the return from remote instruction, she told The 74, states have been left to figure things out for themselves for most of the year-long crisis.

“We started with the Trump administration not being proactive on this issue in a useful way,” Reckhow said. “We never really had a national approach, and so now we have 50 states, 13,000 school districts,” each developing their own processes.

Along with several Michigan State co-authors, Reckhow recently released a working paper that illustrates the powerful political dimensions shaping those decisions. As other researchers have found, decisions about how quickly to reopen schools after the first pandemic wave have been much more influenced by politics than safety concerns. Consequently, a given county’s respective preference for Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election has been a more accurate guide to whether it reopened in-person last fall than COVID incidence rates.

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But Reckhow’s study further observes that the devolution of authority to local school boards was embraced by Democratic and Republican governors alike, partially as a form of “blame avoidance” — essentially leaving tough calls for someone other than the governor to sort out.

Concerns over local autonomy

Debates over public health measures have been a feature of North Carolina political discourse since last spring. Gov. Cooper’s opponent for reelection, Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, even filed an unsuccessful lawsuit to strip him of emergency powers to mandate face coverings and limit public gatherings. Now the positions are somewhat reversed, with Republicans in the state house eager to compel local districts to offer live instruction and the governor warning that such a mandate would “hamper” their flexibility in responding to emergencies.

Ferrel Guillory, a veteran journalist and the vice chairman of the news nonprofit EducationNC, said that the state’s 115 school districts make up a “patchwork of different systems making different judgments” across an education landscape that spans both growing cities like Charlotte and Raleigh as well as rural Appalachian towns to the west. The reopening bill was a sweeping measure in that context, he argued.

“It’s closer to a state mandate to schools rather than a package that works with local school systems to get schools open,” Guillory said. “The Democrats who oppose this bill have opposed it, in part, on the notion that it takes away some local autonomy … And that’s been part of the governor’s concern too.”

The legislation passed both chambers of the legislature with enough votes to override any resistance from Cooper, though it is not clear whether the handful of Democrats who crossed party lines to help it advance would still support it if he chose to veto. Regardless of whether it ever takes effect, families have already begun to feel its effects: In Durham, one of the more progressive areas of the resolutely purple state, district leaders announced they would reconsider their existing strategy of continuing with remote instruction through the end of the school year.

Such changes not only impact families and educators; they also carry obvious weight in the political arena. Last year, many credited Cooper’s well-received COVID response with his relatively handy victory in November. Guillory compared his public profile with that of a “less combative” New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, consistently appearing on television to deliver public updates on the situation. Republicans, he added, would only be happy to make a dent in his reelection honeymoon by forcing his hand on reopening.

“Cooper’s approval ratings remain relatively high,” he said. “I don’t dispute that they have some policy reasons and governance reasons for wanting the schools reopened, but [Republicans] are not unmindful that there’s a political dimension to this. And if they can score a victory over Cooper, they would celebrate it, at least quietly.”

Partisan divides play into other state-level reopening debates as well. Last week, Republicans in the Minnesota state Senate passed a measure stripping Democratic Gov. Tim Walz of his emergency powers to close schools — a toothless provision, since it can’t pass in the state’s Democratic House, but one nonetheless reflective of the weariness that has accompanied a glacial reopening process in some parts of the state.

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Even in Virginia, where Democrats took unified control over state government in 2019, the party is evidently feeling some heat. Gov. Ralph Northam and Democratic majorities in Richmond are currently moving on a bill that would require districts to offer the option of in-person instruction, five days a week, beginning this summer. Republicans in the state have been glad to push the issue in a year when multiple statewide offices, as well as all the seats in the state House of Delegates, are up for grabs. One Republican gubernatorial candidate has already released an ad calling for classrooms to reopen faster.

The legislation would also mandate that school staff be provided access to a COVID vaccine — evidence that political actors are willing to use both carrots and sticks, Reckhow said. But much more than Democrats at the local level, they are increasingly animated by an imperative of both policy and politics: “You need to get kids back.”

“How they go about doing that varies — whether they have a bully pulpit role versus being able to actually attach funding strings — but that’s generally what I’m seeing,” she said. “It’s really only when you get in the specific, special-purpose governance of schools that you see political leaders stick to the idea that you should be only remote and not plan for any type of in-person at all.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article misidentified Minnesota Governor Tim Walz

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